Hannan Parvizian, Volansi co-Founder and CEO, recently had the opportunity to chat with Micheal Huerta, Volansi advisor and former Administrator at Federal Aviation Administration. Michael shared his perspective on what integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace looks like currently, the challenges companies are facing, and what the future may hold for the unmanned industry.
Hannan: I appreciate that comment about the data. I think the challenge that I still perceive from my perspective is that I think about companies like Iris Automation, which you’re probably familiar with. They’ve collected tons and tons of data, but it’s the typical FAA strategy, “Bring me a stone and I’ll tell you if it’s good enough.” There’s no defined criteria similar to how. I think the DNR certification is great. Finally, there’s some defined criteria on what you need to do, how many hours you need to fly to get what sort of waiver for what population density.
For BVLOS, it’s great that these companies are generating data, like Zipline, Iris, L-3 Harris, the work we’re doing in North Dakota that’s ground-based. BNSF did this stuff back in 2016, ’17. It’s very old, comparatively speaking. I think the challenge is the FAA has never defined what data is good enough or what am I looking for in the data? Is it, I want less than one million accidents for every flight hour, or what is it that I’m looking for so that companies can optimize for that?
Frankly, I don’t know even if in the autonomous vehicle space, there’s data around what makes an autonomous vehicle safe. How do you know it’s safe? It seems like somehow autonomous vehicle companies have cars on the road now, and they’re taking the approach of wanting to see what happens. Then in some instances, people actually die. Uber had a program in Arizona, they crashed people and they died. Obviously, the FAA is much more conservative and will never allow that to happen. Under the same umbrella, the DOT has these autonomous programs happening. It seems like there’s different criteria on different sites. I don’t know what your point of view is on that.
Michael: We’ll take the last point you made first. How the DOT operates reflects the view of the larger society. We as a nation seem to accept that between 35,000 and 40,000 people die each year on America’s highways. Imagine if that number of people died in the aviation system. There would be calls to shut the system down.
What that illustrates is the public’s perception of aviation safety, where there is zero-tolerance for any incident or accident, and on the highways, where there is this belief that somehow we’re in control of our destiny.
If something happens while we are driving, it’s the other guy’s fault. In aviation, I think the public generally tends to view it as a much different technology and they want to be assured that someone, and that someone is the FAA, is ensuring that the system is safe overall.
We’re not going to change those larger societal expectations anywhere in the near term. Although, I think that, certainly, my friends in the highway industry would love to have an aviation safety record and they would love to generate the public support for that.
Returning to your question about data, when do we know that we have enough data?I think that is a challenge. We have developed a lot of data. We cannot use our desire to have the best data possible as the reason to do nothing. We need to understand when we have enough data to make an informed decision.
Even though the aviation system is incredibly safe, it is not without risk. Those of us in the aviation industry understand that safety is about managing risk. If we wanted to eliminate it, we would not choose to fly. It’s really a question of how do you know you have enough data to assess risk and to manage it appropriately.
I think what you’re really asking for is for the agency to declare a standard. What is the standard of performance that we would find acceptable? They would acknowledge that they need to do that and they have been doing just that. The best mechanism for doing this is by promulgating rules and regulations.
For new and emerging industries, the regulatory framework is essential to enable the industry to grow. It gives you that certainty we were talking about before. I’m agreeing with you that it is time for the agency to step up, to define what those standards are. Define them in terms of standards of performance, not an absolute, “You shall do it this way.” I think if you put that in front of the companies, the companies will innovate. They need the target to shoot at.
Hannan: Exactly, that’s the challenge. It’s like, shoot in the dark and we’ll see if it hits.
Michael: I understand the frustration. You’re feeling like you’re in that “bring me a rock” mode. It’s like what years ago people used to describe as the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Hannan: Switching topics a little bit more here, just talking about the industry, because you’ve probably seen the whole buzz around autonomous air mobility, and especially the amount of funding that’s going to it through SPACs.
Michael: SPAC mania!
Hannan: SPAC mania, yes. If you were the CEO of a company in this space, whether a cargo or urban mobility, coming from the FAA side, what is your realistic timeline as far as integration of these different technologies in actual real life? As in, when are people going to see drones deliver their packages? When are people going to see flying taxis? And, if you were the CEO of a company like ours or like Joby, what would be a realistic timeline for time to revenue? I looked at Archer’s revenue models, they’re expecting a billion dollars of revenue in 2025.
Another hot topic in that industry, which you’re aware of, is if these systems are supposed to be piloted, then why isn’t an on-demand helicopter service becoming successful? Because if it’s a piloted service, you might as well use helicopters. What’s the point of this stuff? I get that the maintenance cost is lower and the noise is lower, but frankly, when I see these presentations, they always bring the use case of, if someone lands at JFK, they want to get to Manhattan, we’ll do that for them. I think if someone can land at JFK and afford one of this stuff, they probably live in Connecticut and they have their own helicopter waiting for them at JFK. What’s your view on that?
Michael: There’s a lot to unpack there. Let me start by saying it’s interesting to me that in college economics, the very first thing that you’re taught is that markets are rational. That seems to have gone out the window over the last couple of weeks, as I was looking at everything that was going on. But we shouldn’t just dismiss what’s going on because investors are placing bets on the market. What they’re trying to do is to assess who seems to have the best go-to-market strategy. They’re willing to take a leap of faith on whether there’s the management team and the technology that’s ultimately going to get them there.
I think there is a lot of debate around that and there’s a lot we don’t know. I think a fair question is, if what we’re trying to do is remove single-occupant vehicles off of America’s highways if what we’re replacing it with is a trip that is a vehicle for the first mile that takes you to a collection point to get on an aircraft to go to another destination, where you get off and get in another vehicle for the last mile. To me, there is a real question of the public acceptance of that.
But we’re not going to know until we actually start to deploy that in the marketplace more broadly. Then you’re also raising the question of, can we get the kind of scale that everyone likes to talk about unless we make the leap to autonomy, and what does that look like? Do we view piloted, high-performance, electric VTOL aircraft, for example, do we view that as a waypoint, or do we instead skip over that altogether? There are a whole host of regulatory questions that need to be answered, and customer acceptance questions to be answered as part of that.
I think that we’re going to go through a shaking-out period. We’re going to be testing a lot of these in the market, but what’s the timetable? A lot of people are expecting that the piloted version of eVTOL will be out there within the next two or three years. The big unanswered question is what’s it going to take to get to autonomy? I don’t think there is a clear roadmap on what that’s going to look like. Five years ago, when I was at the FAA, someone asked me the question, “When are we going to see package deliveries?” I said, “In five years.” We have package deliveries that are happening, but they’re on a much more limited scale than I think any of us envisioned at that time.
I think part of it gets back to the whole place where we started, which was, what we’re still lacking is the framework that is predictable, durable, and will enable the industry to ultimately grow to the potential that we all would like to see.
Hannan: As a final question, when will we see package deliveries?